The human condition facing big data

On 11 September 2013, I gave this following talk in a “Big Data, Small Data” YouTube Cinema that I co-organized with other three summer fellows at the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. By showing videos that we pick individually (e.g. Julian Ausserhofer’s pick documented in his blog post here “Metaphors of Data”), we started a conversations on how data, big and small, has interfered with our lives and our research.   My talk is the last of the four summer fellows, and I reconstruct my talk in a conversational tone as below.

Yes, as Julian Ausserhofer rightly mentioned, I prefer the terms data massage/masseuse over data science/scientists because I want to put human labour into the process of big data in general. I want to contribute to this conversations by asking this question: Why *my* small data matters to the *big* world of humanity? I will use some videos on sex, porn and genes to illustrate both my questions and arguments. Please believe me that the video selection shows my seriousness about the question and arguments, not some superficial attempts to sell my talk on sex and porn. I deliberately chose topics such as sex, porn and genes because these are intimate subjects that are critical cases for the human condition and, if I can call it, the data condition. I chose these topics also because the data about sex, porn and genes are not necessarily detached or masculine. I want to use these videos to have us reflect on the possibilities and directions of the human condition and human values, when all human data may be collected and processed.

The “living” private stage by the red leftist party (Berlin protest 2013/09/07)

Just came back from a Berlin protest against NSA surveillance, I appreciate the efforts to defend privacy. Very few things could be more private and intimate than sex. What if when sex become a big data business?


Shibuya, Tokyo. On Japan’s influence on the cyberpunk genre, William Gibson once said, “Modern Japan simply was cyberpunk. (photo from Wikicommons)

The movie I.K.U. tells such a story when corporate control over sex data may enhance, and thus take over, our most intimate and private experiences.  The main storyline is indeed about orgasm-data collection and reuse. A corporation sends shapeshifting cyborgs into New Tokyo to gather “orgasm data” by having all kinds of sex with different kinds of people.

IKU poster.jpg

As the first pornographic film screened in Sundance Film Festival in 2000, the independent film I.K.U. is a rare porn in the genre of cyberpunk. It is worth mentioning that the geographic context of the film production, i.e. a Taiwanese-American director used Japanese-language title “iku” (Japanese slang for orgasm). The choice of Tokyo and Japanese references are not arbitrary.  “Modern Japan simply was cyberpunk,” said William Gibson, arguably the most well-known cyberpunk author of Neuromancer , which won the Philip K. Dick Award in memory of Dick’s work including Blade Runner (1982) which also inspired this movie.

The twelve-second movie trailer that I just show you (1:08 – 1:30) should have given you the tone and feelings of soft Japanese sci-fi feeling, and I will not discuss the nuances of soft- and hard-core porn in the movie. Instead, let me remind you that the cyberpunk genre is generally obsessed with corporate control through technology, and its main characters are “marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body” (Person, 1998).

This description provided by sci-fi cyberpunk author Lawrence Person is of interest here for our conversations on big data. The idea of “ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information” is not new, and even then cyberpunk writers have taken a step further to imagine a world where invasive excitation of the human body using cyborgs can collect “orgasm data”. So I suggest that the cultural critique on corporate control made available by cyberpunk is worth reading about and reflecting upon. I also want to highlight that, the “big data” of diverse orgasm experiences, also enhance (or promise to enhance) the human sexual experiences beyond the limits of one’s sexuality and sexual orientation. The business model allows a hetrosexual male to experience sex as a lesbian, and the other way around. So the video provides an answer to the question posed here: Why *my* small data matters to the *big* world of humanity? “Your small orgasm data, collected by our company, can enrich the big exotic world of humanity,” might be a very likely answer given by the “big-orgasm-data” company.

Further reading:


Cyberpunk predates the rise of user-generated content, and thus it is worth mentioning a user-generated porn website that actually collects a particular kind of “orgasm-data”.  The “Beautiful Agony” website collects user-uploaded videos where only head shots of users having orgasms (mostly through masturbation). By concealing anything below the neck and upper chest, the format of such user-generated content structures the “orgasm-data” in a particular way that is somehow different than conventional mainstream porn. Let me show you a US music video featuring a series of such “orgasm-data” from the website. Note that it is not the original porn video but a series of “Beautiful Agony” video being edited together for a music video. I believe that the beginning of the 20 seconds of the music video is enough for today’s discussion.

The Sun – Romantic Death (Official Music Video)Sun

Here we find an interesting case where certain limited format of personal *small* orgasm data are voluntarily given by individual users to a for-profit website. Is this kind of data sharing liberating? Or is this still a form of corporate control? Now it seems to me that both the empowering and enslaving possibilities depend much more on “how” we share our own data, not just on “whether” we share own own data or not. Here my normative answer to the question of big versus small data derives from Hannah Arendt’s concepts on the public, the private, and the social. When fighting or resisting governmental or corporate data control, we must avoid the “loss of the world”. We still need the human world of public sphere and collective action. Sharing and contributing one individual’s small piece of data, as components of action and speech in the public sphere is important and political for the bigger world. Thus, while we need to be cautious about keeping things private and non-sharing, passively avoid more government and corporate control that big data may help facilitate, we also need to proactively link our data for public and political action.

Further reading:

  • Paasonen, S. (2010). Labors of Love: Netporn, Web 2.0, and the Meanings of Amateurism. New Media & Society 12(8). doi:10.1177/1461444810362853
  • Ward, Anna E. (2010). Pantomimes of Ecstasy: and the Representation of Pleasure.53 Camera Obscura 25(1). doi:10.1215/02705346-2009-018


Let me show you two videoes about a civic science project that collect human gene data to map out the tree and paths of human evolution and migration. Here we find yet another project sharing individual small but quiet personal data (one’s DNA) in such a way contributes to our understanding of the bigger world and longer history of humanity. It is the Genographic Project launched in 2005 by the National Geographic Society and IBM with the aim to map human migration by collecting and analyzing DNA samples from people around the world. (First:1:15–>3:55; second: 11:14 –>14:54)

It is an inherently political project as it constructs a compelling narrative that we, despite our racial and ethnic differences, all come from the same ancestor in Africa. It is relatively more difficult to construct a racism ideology if we can see how our individual gene actually belongs to the grand tree of human beings throughout history and around the world. In particular, pay special attention to the second video regarding not only how the personal DNA is collected voluntarily, but also how the non-profit financial support is established. The funds that are raised from selling the DNA-collecting kits to the general public (most likely in the first world) become the Legacy Fund to fund projects that directly preserve or revitalize indigenous culture. Here we see the necessity and alternative thinking of data sharing that is beyond dystopian corporate and/or governmental control.

Further reading:

Getting Political: Personal story/data become big story/data

Hannah Arendt’s concepts really provide me a tentative answer to the big-versus-small data question. We have to be cautious about the rise of the social, be active about expanding and enriching the public and the political.

Ultimately defending privacy is not about keeping something to oneself as isolated individuals (think closet gay), but rather about taking control our individual, social and public lives. To conclude my talk, I want to share with you some videos of the “It Gets Better” project. These videos, contributed by the celebrities and employees from major US companies and government agencies, aim to help gay teenagers who may lose hope for life because of bullying or social alienation.

Thus, we need Hannah Arendt’s vita activa via proactive definition of freedom for data politics:  freedom is about participation in public action, which is the opposite of the undisturbed private life (Canovan, 1974). As a Chinese proverb goes, “when hands tightly closed into fists, you have nothing inside; when hands wide-open, you have the world.” We need better knowledge on data politics to reclaim the wider public world that is beyond corporate and government control.

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2 thoughts on “The human condition facing big data”

  1. Just minor corrections: William Gibson isn’t the author of Blade Runner. Philip K. Dick is the author of the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which was made into the film Blade Runner.